Modern pop’s creative obfuscation of the human voice is a musical tech development on par with the Yardbirds’ fuzzbox explorations, composer La Monte Young’s early drone experiments, and rap producer Marley Marl’s innovation in the field of sampling, in terms of one musician using a piece of gear in a way other than what was intended and inspiring a whole generation to rethink their entire approach to an instrument. Auto-Tune was originally invented by an Exxon engineer after a joke about making a colleague’s tone-deaf spouse sound like a good singer. (The oil industry uses sound to explore the ocean floor, the way bats glean location from sonar as much as sight.) Pitch correction saved producers time by allowing them to touch up imperfect vocals rather than force more takes; still, they used the software conservatively, worrying that listeners might feel duped by performances that sounded too clean. Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe” leaned into the surrealist possibilities of the tech: In the verses, producer Mark Taylor used Auto-Tune to recast the singer’s voice as an uninterrupted series of notes, like a keyboard, upending the natural sound of bending and skipping across tones. Post-“Believe,” Auto-Tune bled into every genre; it’s the common thread joining the bedroom innuendos of T-Pain’s “Can’t Believe It,” Daft Punk’s robot dance party “One More Time,” and the chipper pop-country of Faith Hill’s “The Way You Love Me.”
Hip-hop leads the charge in the Auto-Tune era, where cold, treated vocals depict the dizzying jolt of a world rapidly digitizing, making the distances between people feel smaller but not really bringing them together. As bewildering as this process is to people who grew up with the internet, it might be harder for people who didn’t. (Peruse any trend report about the buying habits of millennials, and the divide between generations manifests.) In the liner notes for his new album Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, 76-year-old Virginia soul eccentric Swamp Dogg described the shock of listening to rap radio on a long drive with producer Larry “MoogStar” Clemon, former keyboard player in vocoder enthusiast Roger Troutman’s Zapp: “After a couple hours, I said, ‘Moogie, did this artist die? And who is he? Why are they playing him so much?’ Moogie said, ‘You’ve heard six artists utilizing all the same timeline settings.’” The day’s curiosity became the bedrock for Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune, a collection of originals and covers produced by Ryan Olson of Poliça, with vocals manipulated by singer-songwriter Justin Vernon using both Auto-Tune and the “Messina” synth and hardware package invented by Bon Iver engineer Chris Messina during the 22, A Million sessions with the purpose of creating artificial vocal harmonies on the fly. It’s an offbeat endeavor, but Swamp Dogg thrives in these conditions.
Swamp Dogg’s career is an obstacle course of rewarding sharp turns and unforeseen setbacks. He scored a minor radio hit in the ’60s singing under his born name Jerry Williams but later graduated to production and A&R work before discovering acid and hatching the idea for an alter ego in 1970. As Swamp Dogg, Williams wrote crass sex songs like “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe” and “Wife Sitter” and stashed social commentary inside absurdist allegorical yarns like “I Was Born Blue.” Swamp made Richard Nixon’s enemies’ list — scathing protest songs like “God Bless America for What” work wonders on a petty, vindictive commander-in-chief — but never the radio. His music grew a second life decades later in rap samples, which helped him continue to workshop new songs. Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune is an outlier in a catalogue full of left-field gestures not just because it toys with the singer’s devastating vocals, but also because beneath the electronic embellishments, Swamp Dogg is playing it shockingly straight.
The new album is a gear shift on the politics and faithful soul standards of Swamp Dogg’s last album, 2014’s The White Man Made Me Do It. Across a blend of new originals and expertly chosen covers, Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune explores the peaks and valleys of companionship, both in lustful songs like “I’m Coming With Lovin’ on My Mind” and “She’s All Mind All Mind,” and also in a section of tunes that peer at isolation through the prism of the emptiness the singer experienced losing his wife and manager, Yvonne Williams, in 2003. “Before, when I would write songs about loneliness in other people,” Swamp told Rolling Stone last week, “I was just writing about people I knew, things they had said about their breakups, that kind of stuff. This time, I am, seriously, lonely.” “I’ll Pretend” reframes that pain as the comforting denial of an ex-boyfriend who just can’t believe his lover walked out on him. “Lonely” is a desolate weeper dressed up in sweet guitar licks and festive horns. Downcast covers of old Nat King Cole favorites bookend the album: “Answer Me, My Love” begs for another chance to talk to someone who’s moved on; “Star Dust” signs off resolving to savor the sweetness of memory.
Swamp’s lyrics work hard to render his pain universal, but effects and arrangements set Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune apart from other albums that touch the same themes. “Answer Me” blends heavy-handed strings, fun house vocal tricks, and trap drums, arriving at a sound not unlike walking into a room where the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” and TNGHT’s “R U Ready” are playing on dueling stereos. The shock of hearing all these sounds stack on top of each other never quite settles, because Swamp Dogg, Olson, MoogStar, and Vernon keep shoveling in more ingredients. “I’ll Pretend” adds stadium-sized synths and vocals from Vernon, and elsewhere, songs play around with aspects of house, synth pop, and funk.
The album loses a bit of focus in the middle, where “$$$ Huntin’” and “I Love Me More” better showcase the band’s vamping than the singer’s power. The front end is such a feat of cracked brilliance, of anachronistic pieces colliding to create something both familiar and deeply odd, that you wish everyone onboard delved further into the concept. The gravity of the “loss” section of the album makes the “love” bits feel lightweight. But when the incongruous ingredients gel, like they do in the booming robot soul of “Lonely,” Swamp’s heavily treated, full-throated howl gives the lie to the idea that Auto-Tune is best used to effect emotional distance or dress up a rapper’s creaky singing voice. Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune is proof the right voice can make machine sounds sing. That’s a new trick the young dogs should heed.